The Ballad of Bobby Grich

Bobby Grich is the Rosetta Stone between the old baseball world and the new age baseball world. If you’ve read my baseball writing before you’ve probably heard me talk about this issue before. The standard response from the old baseball world is that they know a great player when they see one. I give you Bobby Grich. Grich is a mostly forgotten man in traditional baseball circles, but for stat heads he is the Holy Grail.

The irony of the debate is easy to see. Traditionalists love to say that they know great players when they see them. I would argue that we all do, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. Invariably, those on the traditional side will use numbers to their defense. In these cases we use the traditional counting numbers instead of the new numbers. We don’t need to the new numbers to tell us who was great. That’s just a crutch.

Of course, really smart people have reservations about some of these metrics. Those reservations are based on well thought out objections to the math involved. This diatribe is really not aimed at them. We should always check ourselves and our assumptions so we grow in our analysis. There are far too many people that dismiss all of this out of hand. So, let’s take a look at Grich’s career and see why these two groups see him differently. Then, maybe we can decide who is right after all.

This isn’t to say the traditionalists are completely unsystematic. They have a few things they look at in addition to brute, raw numbers. The first test they often take is the black ink test. This is simply the number of times a player led the league in a statistical category. He led the league in home runs and slugging percentage in 1981 and played in every game in 1973. That was it. The second test was basic awards voting like Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, and all-star game. Grich played in six all-star games, won four Gold Gloves, and a silver slugger award.

There are no hard and fast rules on either test, but those results usually mean you’ve ended up short. Most voters look for players that play in around ten all-star games. He had a good fielding reputation based on the Gold Gloves, but the voters usually like more. Obviously, winning only one silver slugger is not all that impressive comparatively.

The third and final test was where a player finished in the awards voting. Grich finished with two top ten finishes in the MVP voting. He finished in the top 20 three other times. Usually a player that finishes no higher than eighth has no business being in the Hall of Fame. Yet, this is where traditional wisdom and the new methodology differs. He finished in the top ten four times in bWAR including 2nd in 1973 and 5th in 1981. Two top five finishes to go with those two top ten finishes would have made him look considerably better. Ironically enough, he had only two seasons where he was the best fielding second basemen according to total zone runs. He did finish in the top ten four other times.

The long and short of it is that Grich looks better when you start comparing him with the replacement level or average player. Grich was at the very least above average offensively and defensively simultaneously. Sometimes it is easy to overlook the combination effect of being better than average or merely good at every facet of the game. The pundits saw an above average player, but the numbers reveal a very good player. So, let’s take a look at how he fared in the index.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Bobby Grich 71.1 69.1 65.8 206.0

If this is the first article you are reading on this site then the numbers above are meaningless to you. All statistics must have a context. The best thing we can do is look at his contemporaries and see how they fared. Grich played in both the 1970s and 1980s, but he was considerably better in the 1970s. If we take a look at their index scores we might see what the above numbers mean.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Willie Randolph 65.9 62.1 62.4 190.4
Lou Whitaker 75.1 68.1 70.2 213.4
Davey Lopes 42.4 41.8 48.0 132.2
Phil Garner 29.7 28.2 39.0 96.9
Frank White 34.8 31.1 42.2 108.1
Tom Herr 23.5 22.9 34.0 80.4
Steve Sax 25.7 22.6 39.6 87.9

We will cover the Hall of Fame cases for Randolph and Whitaker in a subsequent article. However, the other guys were all fair country ballplayers and they were all significantly worse than Grich in the index. How does this happen? Well, that can only be explained by looking at some other numbers. We will get to those in a minute. That being said, we should talk a little about how these numbers should be interpreted.

It would be fair to point out that we did not include anyone currently in the Hall of Fame that played in the same period (Morgan, Sandberg, Carew). There were a few other players we could have included that we did not. The entire idea around the index is not to completely rank players with that information alone. Whitaker may be better than Grich or he might not. The same is true of Randolph. That’s not really the point. The point is that they are similar. The others are not. So, they are not in the same league as those guys. Now, we will look at some offensive numbers to determine why.

  OPS+ Rbaser SEC OW% wRC+ wOBA
Grich 125 4 .318 .609 129 .361
Lopes 107 83 .326 .573 111 .336
Garner 99 5 .240 .497 99 .317
White 85 1 .192 .414 84 .301
Herr 95 7 .219 .522 98 .317
Sax 95 23 .195 .486 97 .313

We could conceivably stop with OPS+ because most people understand that and we already see separation. However, that would ignore some other compelling numbers. We’ve used offensive winning percentage before and it bears repeating for those that have seen it before. We assume all nine hitters in the lineup produce exactly like the hitter in question. Grich and Lopes are both above average, but a majority of Lopes’ added production came with his legs. Both secondary average (SEC) and wOBA demonstrate the same thing. Too many people focus on batting average. Grich wasn’t special in that deparment, but he combined a good batting eye and some surprise power to produce good numbers in those categories. Lopes used speed to produce a good secondary average. The rest of the players fall further behind in all of the categories.

Remember, we are excluding Morgen, Randolph, Whitaker, and Sandberg. So, it might seem like we are stacking the deck in Grich’s favor, but we are also excluding a ton of guys that just didn’t last and never put up huge numbers. The point here is that Grich might not be called a brilliant hitter, but he was a good one and certainly a good one for a second baseman. Others were better (notably Morgan) and some were as good (Whitaker, Lopes) but the value comes in being better than most. So, now we should compare Grich to that same group defensively.

  Rfield DWAR TZ WS WS/1000
Grich 82 16.8 83 85.8 5.68
Lopes -27 1.7 -32 49.1 4.12
White 121 21.9 121 99.7 5.58
Garner 13 7.0 15 62.1 4.11
Herr -14 3.9 -13 51.8 4.36
Sax -61 -0.9 -61 54.4 3.71

So, again we see that Grich is not the best of the bunch. Frank White was a perennial Gold Glove performer, so it is no surprise that he should come out looking so good here, but it is a lot closer than people think. In many instances, we dismiss a fielder if he doesn’t win a ton of Gold Gloves. An above average fielder has value. Someone consistently above average has more value than you might think.

Yet, here is where the rubber meets the road and this is where traditionalists sometimes miss the mark. When we expand the second base list to include the likes of Joe Morgan, Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, Ryne Sandberg and even a guy like Steve Sax we find individual skills that some did better than Grich. There were players that hit for better average. There were players that ran the bases better. There were players that hit for more power. There were some that had more patience. Obviously, White and Randolph were superior fielders. There weren’t many that did it all as well as Grich. So, those that focus on individual categories miss the point.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Bobby Grich 55.4 52.8 47.8 156.0

The numbers above represent Grich’s peak value. This is arguably where Grich shines. The biggest problem for the traditionalists is that he simply didn’t play long enough. It took some time for him to break into Earl Weaver’s lineup and the two sometimes did not get along. This gets us to a philosophical question. Should a player be penalized when those in charge of playing him didn’t fully understand his value? Weaver was a great manager, but sometimes even great managers make mistakes.

When he was at his best, Grich was more valuable than both Lou Whitaker and Willie Randolph. In fact, he was superior to Roberto Alomar from the previous article. So, he arguably has the best case for anyone on the outside looking in to get into the Hall of Fame. That might be for every position when things like PEDs are thrown into the conversation. Unfortunately, his name hardly ever gets mentioned outside of these circles. It’s really too bad.

  Career Peak Total
Bobby Grich 206.0 156.0 362.0

The index was never designed to be used to rank players. Grich’s final index score puts him squarely in the neighborhood of Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Lou Whitaker, and Craig Biggio. Some have higher scores and some have lower scores but they are all fairly close. Grich belongs in that conversation. Where that conversation goes depends on who you are with at the sports bar, but he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

WAR (What is it good for?)

Occasionally, you see something or get involved In a discussion that changes your thinking. I started this site because it allows me to react to these things in real time. So, today we are taking a step back from the index briefly so we can address a debate that has been raging on the internet. Essentially, there has been a backlash against WAR. It has been going on for a lot longer than I’ve been making out, and I won’t be avoiding WAR for too long, but since I have the platform I’ll try to put my own spin on the subject.

Last time, we introduced total runs as an alternative number to use. It has its advantages. First, it’s easy to understand because the components are right there in front of you. With the components being there you can also manipulate them. We certainly will do that. Second, it accounts for longevity. That’s one of the hallmarks of the Hall of Fame. The longer you play the more likely you are to get in. Of course, there are some that debate the merits of longevity as it compares with quality. One compares players that compile numbers and others compare players with the average.

WAR and win shares attempts to marry the two by comparing players with a replacement level player. So, one can accrue value over time by being average or even below average. That becomes important when looking at a total runs metric. We will look at the findings for those in the Hall of Fame at second base along with four players that some people think definitely should be in the Hall of Fame. As promised, there will be no WAR today, but there will be two iterations of total runs. The first combines runs created, Rfield, and Rbaser. That’s a direct reenactment of the formula seen on billjamesonline.com

RC Rfield Rbaser Total
Rogers Hornsby 2045 54 -9 2080
Eddie Collins 1811 35 40 1886
Joe Morgan 1804 -48 80 1836
Craig Biggio 1832 -100 54 1786
Nap Lajoie 1690 83 -11 1762
Charlie Gehringer 1715 34 9 1758
Rod Carew 1595 14 26 1635
Frankie Frisch 1460 140 28 1628
Roberto Alomar 1575 -36 54 1593
Lou Whitaker 1395 77 32 1504
Jeff Kent 1497 -42 1 1456
Ryne Sandberg 1342 60 33 1435
Willie Randolph 1138 114 41 1293
Bobby Grich 1127 82 4 1213
Jackie Robinson 951 81 30 1062

Depending on your familiarity with these numbers, some of you are either soaking it in or yelling at the computer screen. First, I should mention that I don’t think Bill ever intended for his total runs metric to be used this way. His are always shown through the eyes of a single season. There is an important reason for that and it has to be mentioned before we move forward. Runs created are not normalized throughout history. Simply put, 100 runs created in 1968 is far different comparatively to 100 runs created in 1998. So, comparing a player like say Ryne Sandberg to Jeff Kent or Rogers Hornsby is nearly impossible using runs created.

This becomes problematic when trying to reach any conclusions from this particular formula. Looking at runs created ignores the quality in which these runs were created. In other words, while a Craig Biggio was second all-time at the position in runs created, we cannot assume he was the second-best hitter at the position. He produced the second most runs partially because he spent most of his career in a great hitter’s era and also because he played for a really long time. So, some would question his placement in the fourth spot in history and rightfully so.

When one considers WAR they would consider that at a certain point, Biggio was no longer providing value. Yes, he was creating runs, but if the Astros put someone like Chris Burke in his spot they might have gotten a better rate of runs created, baserunning runs, and fielding runs. So, in a table like above, Biggio was continuing to add value. In reality, he wasn’t. That’s where statistics like win shares or WAR are more descriptive than numbers like above.

Of course, we can make adjustments above by replacing runs created with baseball-reference’s Rbat statistic. It is the number of runs created above average. This does a number of things for us. First, it brings more fidelity because Rbat, Rfield, and Rbaser are all compared to the average player. Secondly, it helps solve the problem of different eras because each player is compared with the average player from that era. Finally, it doesn’t reward longevity nearly as much. You only get extra credit if you are actually good. It is interesting to see how the rankings with the same players differs when switching methodologies.

Rbat Rfield Rbaser Total
Rogers Hornsby 861 54 -9 906
Eddie Collins 629 35 40 704
Nap Lajoie 576 83 -11 648
Joe Morgan 450 -48 80 482
Rod Carew 407 14 26 447
Charlie Gehringer 379 34 9 422
Jackie Robinson 261 81 30 372
Bobby Grich 256 82 4 342
Frankie Frisch 159 140 28 327
Lou Whitaker 209 77 32 318
Ryne Sandberg 192 60 33 285
Willie Randolph 120 114 41 275
Roberto Alomar 242 -36 54 260
Jeff Kent 297 -42 1 256
Craig Biggio 257 -100 54 211

One of the joys of living with a scientist is that I get to see this kind of work poked fun at because of all of the rules we break. Most baseball statisticians are guilty of something called confirmation bias. It is defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. James himself demonstrated this when he asserted that any metric that did not have Ruth on top was inherently inaccurate. That may or may not be true, but it obviously doesn’t rigorously follow the scientific method.

I say that to point out that the above list probably matches most people’s beliefs about second basemen closer than the first one. That would tend to get most to say that the above method is more accurate. The problem is that average performers have value. According to the above chart they don’t. So, there is an inherent problem here. The first chart asserts that everyone has value. The second says you have to be above average to have value. What we need is something that marries the two.

This is where metrics like WAR and win shares come in. Craig Biggio is not the worst player in the group and he isn’t the fourth best player in the group. He is likely somewhere in between. The same is true of a player like Bobby Grich in reverse. Some credit has to be given for longevity, but we have to be careful about how much. If we learn anything it is that one set of numbers (no matter how carefully compiled) can tell us the whole story. That includes WAR.

What about: Jeff Kent

The nature of the what about series developed when we consider players that the public clamors for, but really aren’t quite Hall of Fame worthy. There are few second basemen that fit that description. The players that are passionately argued for are tend to actually belong in the Hall of Fame, so we move onto the borderline candidates. The one that seems to get the most attention is Jeff Kent.

That makes sense because up until Robinson Cano, Kent was the all-time leader for home runs as a second baseman. Obviously, leading in one of the major categories is compelling, but the key is whether he is a good enough all-around player. There are two reasons why players aren’t elected to the Hall of Fame. Either the BBWAA doesn’t think they were good enough or they simply didn’t like him. Either one could be true of Kent.

Kent and Barry Bonds were the two star players in San Francisco. It was said that Kent was the only player that could get 23 guys to unite behind Bonds. Since Bonds was notoriously prickly, that gives you an indication of how disliked Kent was. When he came to Houston, he reportedly told Jeff Bagwell that his goal was to leave baseball without any friends. Bagwell said, “so far, so good.” All of this is to say that Kent is a very unlikable guy by all accounts. So, maybe that spilled over to the Hall of Fame voting.

We start with the index and move on from there. The index doesn’t definitively tell us anything, but it does help eliminate players that obviously should not be considered. From there, we can take a look at the offensive and fielding numbers individually to see if we are missing anything the basic information is not providing.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Jeff Kent 55.4 56.1 64.8 176.3

The career value doesn’t necessarily reveal whether he is worthy candidate one way or another. 300 tends to be the minimum score for Hall of Fame fitness. Obviously, we don’t know the peak value score, but the career value scores show he was good, but something is missing. We can’t know what that is until we break down the offensive and defensive numbers. Like with Craig Biggio in the last article, he had a significant advantage in win shares because of the consistent competitive nature of the teams he played on. Given that fact, we should probably look at the postseason numbers too.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Jeff Kent 42.8 43.8 47.0 133.6

There is nothing wrong with being a four win player, but when that is where you are when you are at your peak then there is something missing. If we add the career and peak value together we get 309.9 wins. That squarely puts Kent in the borderline category. As my fellow teachers tend to say, attitude can be the difference between and A and a B (or worse). It also means we need to start looking for tiebreakers. So, we start with the postseason and move on from there.

  PA AVG OBP SLG HR Runs RBI
Kent 189 .276 .340 .500 9 25 23

According to the postseason numbers, he was roughly the same hitter he was during the regular season. At first blush this would seem to give him no more of an advantage as if he had done nothing. However, if we assume that you are playing superior competition then your numbers should be worse theoretically. So, give a bit of a bonus point to Kent. His OPS was higher in the World Series than at any individual level of the playoffs. So, he got better as the chips were down.

WAR and win shares have their detractors and the Hall of Fame is way too important to boil down to just those metrics. Kent’s index scores get him in the ballpark and his postseason record is a credit as well. Based on those numbers alone he has an excellent argument but we should compare him to the bottom of the second base BBWAA group. First, we will look at their offensive numbers and then their defensive numbers. Finally, we will introduce a new metric that might shed some light on the issue.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Craig Biggio 112 54 .597 115 .352
Ryne Sandberg 114 33 .620 115 .351
Roberto Alomar 116 54 .600 118 .359
Jeff Kent 123 1 .604 123 .367

These numbers are very revealing. Overall, these players are fairly similar even though Kent has a superior OPS+. As we can see, the baserunning numbers are definitely off kilter. Often times it is the little things that makes a big difference. However, based on these numbers alone Kent definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame. Of course, the index scores say something else, so we should look at the fielding numbers to see what is going on.

Fielding Numbers 

  Rfield DWAR TZ DWS
Craig Biggio -100 -2.9 -33 86.0
Ryne Sandberg 60 13.5 60 89.0
Roberto Alomar -38 3.3 -3 95.5
Jeff Kent -42 -0.1 9 71.8

The defensive win shares tell a tale here. The tale they tell is that Kent did not enjoy the same length of a career as the others. In terms of quality he rates somewhere between Alomar and Biggio. In terms of reputation he was nowhere near any of those guys. He probably deserves better than what he has gotten. To give the perspective of time in addition to quality we can use a modified version of Bill James’ total runs. It includes most of the elements of WAR and win shares, but it is broken down and transparent. It includes runs created for the offensive element, Rfield for the fielding, and Rbaser for baserunning.

  RC Rfield Rbaser Total Runs
Craig Biggio 1832 -100 54 1786
Ryne Sandberg 1342 60 33 1435
Roberto Alomar 1575 -38 54 1591
Jeff Kent 1497 -42 1 1456

This is certainly interesting. These numbers put Kent somewhere in the neighborhood of Sandberg. Of course, the problem is that a run created in 2000 was not worth the same as a run created in 1985. So, maybe we should take these results with a grain of salt. Still, the results are what they are. He is in the neighborhood according to the index and he is in the neighborhood on the offensive numbers and he is in the neighborhood here.

He and Sandberg are similar in that they did not enjoy lengthy careers. You could say they are roughly equal offensively when all things are considered. Sandberg was obviously superior defensively. For some that is the difference. For others Kent is thrust over the threshold when you consider his postseason numbers. My personal take will probably change every time you ask me.

Biggio vs. Alomar (and Sandberg)

There are few players that are as polarizing as Craig Biggio. Obviously, this is through no fault of his own. Through most accounts, he played hard and he played the game right for 20 seasons. The reasons for his polarizing nature are based on how people perceive his career. Naturally, Astros fans think he is one of the all-time greats based on some impressive counting numbers. People on the east and west coast think he is one of the more overrated players in the history of the game.

Chief among these was professional talking head Mike Francesa. He steadfastly believed that Biggio shouldn’t get in and called him a glorified singles hitter. The numbers say something else as they almost always do. That is the defense against the “I know them when I see them” crowd. On top of that, systems like the index reveal the problems with the counting numbers that see below. Here are Biggio’s career ranks amongst primary second basemen in history.

Hits: 3060 (3rd)

2B: 668 (1st)

HR: 291 (4th)

TB: 4711 (2nd)

BB: 1160 (7th)

SB: 414 (6th)

RC: 1832 (2nd)

Much of the debate in Francesa’s case was a Craig Biggio vs. Roberto Alomar debate. Of course, the numbers here clearly point to Biggio as any Houston fan would attest, but they aren’t necessarily completely right either. Counting numbers can be deceiving. Add in runs and RBI and it becomes that much more of a stacked deck. It might lead you to believe he was a top five second basemen in history. As we will see, that’s a bit far fetched.

Career Value 

bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Craig Biggio 65.5 65.8 85.3 216.6
Ryne Sandberg 68.0 60.9 69.2 198.1
Roberto Alomar 67.1 63.6 67.0 197.7

The index is different from counting numbers because one must have value to accrue career value. Well duh. However, it is easy to miss how this differs from even sophisticated counting numbers like runs created. Would anyone in their right mind really suggest Biggio was the second best second sacker in history? The fact is that playing for 20 seasons (and most of them healthy seasons) has a way of helping you accrue those numbers. Unfortunately, his last few seasons saw him add very little if any real value.

Of course, Francesa was quick to point out that Biggio was not as good with the glove as Alomar. This is both true and misleading. Biggio was not a good defender by most metrics, but neither was Alomar. Alomar won Gold Gloves because Alomar made it into the highlights almost every night. Defensive metrics don’t add up Web Gems. They add up assists, putouts, double plays, and yes even errors. More advanced systems use video to determine how many plays a player should have made in comparison with the plays he did make. You don’t get extra credit for diving stops or acrobatic throws.

The index includes both offense and fielding. If we go only according to the index we would have put him in our last grouping with the likes of Charlie Gehringer, Rod Carew, and Frankie Frisch. As we will see, there are reasons not to include him in that group. However, he compares favorably to Sandberg and Alomar. Before we go to the offensive and fielding numbers we should probably look at peak value numbers.

Peak Value 

bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Ryne Sandberg 56.7 51.6 55.6 163.9
Craig Biggio 52.2 51.3 57.1 160.6
Roberto Alomar 50.4 47.6 48.9 146.9

One of the things we notice when looking at this data is Biggio’s significant advantage in win shares. Why does this happen? Simply put, the Astros were consistently competitive throughout Biggio’s career. Their only real down seasons came in 1991 and 2000. Otherwise, they were usually in the playoff hunt every year. Since win shares are based on wins that would give him that advantage.

Sandberg famously missed two seasons after a premature retirement that didn’t take. He tried to save his first marriage and it wouldn’t be saved. Give him even two mediocre seasons and he likely would be in Biggio territory in career value and might have surpassed his peak value. Of course, he isn’t the focus of this particular debate. Most of us know what Sandberg was and there isn’t a particular amount of debate there. Before we move onto the meaty part of the debate we will clean up the index with the totals.

Hall of Fame Index 

Career Peak Total
Craig Biggio 216.6 160.6 377.2
Ryne Sandberg 198.1 163.9 362.0
Roberto Alomar 197.7 146.9 344.4

The index scores put Biggio in the group that we mentioned last time, but he also hung out for a long time. We will ignore counting numbers because counting numbers tend to get skewed as players play for a long time. Biggio probably played two or three years past his usefulness in order to get to 3000 hits. The Astros obliged because of all he did for them and they got some marketing out of the deal. Let’s tear all that away and look at the facts.

Offensive Numbers 

OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Biggio 112 54 .597 115 .352
Alomar 116 54 .600 118 .359
Sandberg 114 33 .620 115 .351

 Francesa argued that Biggio didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame period. The numbers above show that point to be ludicrous on its face. Alomar was better, but these are career numbers and were based on all 20 years for Biggio. While he added singles, doubles, and home runs down the stretch, he also added strikeouts and suffered through down OBP and SLG years. The Astrodome was already accounted for, so fellow Astros fans can rest assured Biggio wasn’t punished here.

Still, you can argue that Alomar was a better player based on these numbers. I have to wonder if we looked at the peak value numbers whether that would still be the case. Yet, when all things are considered if you admit one you have to admit them all based on this data alone. They are just too close. Since we can go back to the peak years, let’s check it out.

OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Alomar 127 36 .634 128 .383
Biggio 125 32 .646 129 .373

We can start with the obvious comparison, but these numbers are proof of something else. When you look at these players you must look at them over the course of their careers and when they are at their best. Biggio held on longer, so his numbers took a bigger dive. Considering that each of them were better in some categories than others we can only conclude that they are very close if not equal when they were at their best. At least offensively that is.

Fielding Numbers

Rfield TZ DWAR DWS
Sandberg 60 60 13.5 89.0
Alomar -38 -3 3.3 95.5
Biggio -100 -33 -2.9 86.0

By all accounts, Alomar was not as brilliant a defender as people seem to remember. The numbers say something else. What’s more, he almost exclusively played at second base. Biggio played behind the dish for a few years, in left field for a few seasons, and in center field. He was not particularly good at any of them admittedly, but he might have been had he been given the opportunity to play their exclusively. This is likely wishful thinking though.

This brings us to the ultimate question. Who would you rather have on your team? This is an impossible question to ask definitively. If you want longevity it’s Biggio. If you want top end performance it might be Alomar, but that is closer than it appears. Alomar was the better defender, but Biggio offered more flexibility. The choice is yours.

Second Basemen: The Next Tier

When the book was published, I broke down players into groups within the Hall of Fame. Of course, that was back when we included the players from the Veteran’s Committee. We haven’t had to do that this time, but occasionally we see pretty clear divisions amongst the BBWAA selections. Second base is one of those instances. We’ve already taken a look at the top four guys at the position and we have four more who were very close.

The index usually reveals this, but we have Jackie Robinson as a part of our list this time around. He did not make his debut until he was 28, so he obviously did not put up the kind of career numbers as the other three guys. We will look at the offensive numbers and fielding numbers as well to see how similar these players were.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Charlie Gehringer 80.7 78.6 76.6 235.9
Rod Carew 81.3 72.3 76.8 230.4
Frankie Frisch 70.4 74.8 73.2 218.4
Jackie Robinson 61.4 57.2 51.4 170.0

Let’s assume that Robinson had four additional seasons. If we take his first four seasons in the big leagues and simply repeat them then we get some idea of how valuable he would have been over the course of a full career. So, if we look at the numbers we can go ahead and add them in.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Adjusted 25.6 24.7 22.2 72.5
New Total 87.0 81.9 73.6 242.5

Of course, this is our best guess. There are any number of factors that could effect where Robinson would have ended up. Even if we assume he would have had four full seasons more on the front end, that doesn’t mean he would have finished at the same time. You also have the adjustment period at the beginning of every career. Seasons five through eight may have been even better. These push and pull factors make it impossible to guess accurately, but the above score is a pretty good estimate.

So, from here on out, we can see that all four of these players are fairly close in terms of overall career value. How they produced that value was somewhat different. That’s always part of the fun of these sorts of studies. As you might imagine, their peak values are far different and obviously put their careers in different lights.

Peak Value

  BWAR FWAR WS/5 Total
Charlie Gehringer 62.2 60.9 55.6 178.8
Jackie Robinson 61.4 57.2 51.4 170.0
Frankie Frisch 55.8 59.1 50.6 165.5
Rod Carew 59.3 52.3 50.0 161.6

You’ll notice that these players flipped positions. That obviously means the combined scores will end up being closer than the career values appeared. Gehringer is clearly the standard bearer of this group when we take Robinson’s career at face value. However, we see that the rest of the list is inverted. Before we consider the total index, we should probably take a look at the award voting to see how these players were perceived during their career.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 25
Charlie Gehringer 1 2 4 3
Rod Carew 1 2 3 2
Frankie Frisch 1 2 1 5
Jackie Robinson 1 1 2 4

So, these players are still rather similar when we compare their finishes in the awards voting. Robinson finished in the top 16 in the awards voting in eight out of his ten seasons. That includes his last season when he played in only 117 games. Frisch finished in the top 25 nine times, Carew eight times, and Gehringer ten times. That’s a pretty tight grouping, so we don’t learn much in terms of finding separation. We will have to look at the offensive and fielding numbers for that. First, let’s combine the career and peak value.

Hall of Fame Index 

  Career Peak Total
Charlie Gehringer 235.9 178.7 414.6
Rod Carew 230.4 161.6 392.0
Frankie Frisch 218.4 165.5 383.9
Jackie Robinson 170.0 170.0 340.0

So, we have three players that are relatively close and we have Robinson who is obviously in a different category. However, when we look at the offensive and fielding numbers we see he really does belong in this group. Even if we set the index at 350 we would still take all of them in the Hall of Fame, but it is still fun to break them down according to their numbers.

Offensive Production 

  OPS+ RBaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Gehringer 124 9 .665 124 .405
Carew 131 26 .670 132 .369
Frisch 110 29 .603 112 .370
Robinson 132 30 .687 135 .406

So, when we dial away the index and look at it’s components we find that Robinson has a very definite claim as the best performer of the bunch. He was the best hitter and the best base runner of the bunch. It should be no surprise that he had the best wRC+ and offensive winning percentage of the bunch. Even more impressive, he had the best wOBA even though he did not play in as good a hitting era as Gehringer and Frisch.

Carew played in a more depressed offensive time and he was not as dynamic offensively as the others (save for Frisch). Many that saw him play later in his career remember the brilliant singles hitter that couldn’t do much else. Early in his career he was a brilliant base runner as well. Robinson and Frisch were good runners as well. Even Gehringer was good comparatively. It’s a group without any major weaknesses.

Scouts and fans are mesmerized by the five tools and assume that every tool is created equal. So, they compare the base running totals along with the power and on base numbers as if they are equal. That goes for fielding as well. Frisch is a cut below offensively, but always had a stellar defensive reputation. Let’s see if it is warranted.

Fielding Numbers 

  TZ DWS DWS/1000 DWAR
Gehringer 34 86.8 4.49 10.7
Carew 16 39.3 4.19 -1.7
Frisch 140 83.9 5.42 21.6
Robinson 81 37.7 5.94 10.1

Let’s start with win shares. We had to add the per 1000 innings category because most of these players played other positions for a good portion of their careers. The defensive win shares represent their numbers only at second base. So, Carew and Robinson look worse than they really are. When we switch over to the per 1000 innings category we see that Robinson is actually the best defender.

Unfortunately, these numbers aren’t interval in nature. In other words, they really don’t build on each other. We use them to get a general sense of how each player compares with each other. With the exception of win shares per 1000 innings, Frisch appears to be the best fielder of the bunch. That particularly comes into focus when looking at total zone runs (and baseball-reference’s Rfield) and defensive WAR.

If you are looking at defensive WAR for the first time you should know some of the peculiarities in how it is compiled. Players are compared in one universe of value, so middle infielders are more important than corner infielders. This is important because Robinson and Carew spent time at third base and first base in their careers. Carew comes out negative because most first basemen come out negative. Frisch shifted over to shortstop on occasion, so he wins on degree of difficulty.

Frisch obviously has to be considered the standard amongst these four and might look that way when compared to the elite group as well. However, how would he look when compared to the guys with stellar defensive reputations that are in the Hall of Fame. So, we include Bid McPhee, Nap Lajoie, and Bill Mazeroski into the conversation.

  TZ DWAR DWS DWS/1000
Bid McPhee 154 16.2 98.7 5.25
Nap Lajoie 83 10.1 85.7 4.69
Frankie Frisch 140 21.6 83.9 5.42
Bill Mazeroski 147 24.0 112.2 6.13

This is one of the few times where reputation and evidence meets. Mazeroski has the reputation as the best fielding second baseman in history and the numbers seem to reveal the same thing. Of course, the others played other positions which affected the numbers up or down. The total defensive win shares were those only compiled at second base. So, they likely would have finished closer, but the win shares per 1000 innings indicate that Maz is the king with the glove.

As we saw in the book though, Hall of Famers have to be great players overall. Maz’s entire value came with the glove. Frisch was very valuable defensively and at least brought some value with the bat. When you add his fielding and hitting he becomes as valuable as Gehringer, Carew, and Robinson.

What About: Jorge Posada

In 2000, Eddie Epstein and Rob Neyer wrote “Baseball’s Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All-time.” The book is the definitive outlook on the game’s greatest teams. Fifteen teams were selected from the 20th century. Nearly half of those teams had a Hall of Fame catcher. Of course, I’ve mentioned this before, but no other single position is more represented in Cooperstown amongst the teams in that book.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the price of tea, but it should be no surprise that the 1998 Yankees were the last team covered in that book. In addition to the six Hall of Fame catchers, the other teams were represented by some darn good ones. Johnny Kling, Chief Meyers, and Gene Tenace have their champions in the baseball community. Elston Howard was a darn good one during his prime as well. Some people even champion Walker Cooper of the Cardinals as well.

This brings us to Jorge Posada of the latest Yankees dynasty. Dynasties have to have some serendipity on their side. You obviously have to have great players, but sometimes you need good players that happen to play great. Then, you get unsung players that come out of nowhere and have a great season. Every championship team has those guys. So, was Posada a great player, a good one that was great at the right time, or was he one of those guys that came out of nowhere?

The comparisons with Howard are probably apt, but Posada was a really good catcher for about a decade. For whatever reason, he likely will not muster the value needed to be seriously considered by the BBWAA. It was to the point where I did not seriously consider him when looking at the modern candidates. However, considering his place on one of the greatest teams in history, he deserves a longer look. Let’s start with the index.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career Value 42.8 44.7 51.6 139.1
Peak Value 39.8 40.4 43.0 123.2
Total 82.6 85.1 94.6 262.3

It would be easy enough to drop it right here, but that would be disrespectful to a pretty darn good player. When you get to 260 in the index you are a very good player in the history of the game. There are those that would claim that good players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It is a museum after all and if they were instrumental in the success of a good team then you can make that argument. The trouble there is that you have others that were also good players that didn’t have the opportunity to play on a good team. When you mention Howard you see a really good historical comparison.

  AVG OBP SLG HR Runs RBI
Elston Howard .274 .322 .427 167 619 762
Jorge Posada .273 .374 .474 275 900 1065

Howard has fame because he hit .348 with 21 home runs for the 1961 Yankees. He is the perfect example of a good player having a great season at the right time. Posada was good for longer, but the career numbers above show he probably came up just a little short. Of course, the interaction between the career and peak value numbers show you that as well. Still, his 121 OPS+ compares favorably to the other catchers in the Hall of Fame. So, why are his numbers so lackluster. Fortunately for us, Posada played at a time when we had a better understanding of all that went into catcher defense. Below we look at the numbers that compose defensive runs saved since they were compiled in 2003.

  ADJ ER Strikes SB Bunts GFP/DME Total Rank
2003 -5 0 3 0 0 -2 29
2004 -3 0 -2 -1 -6 -12 35
2005 -2 0 0 0 2 0 5
2006 -3 0 4 0 -4 -3 19
2007 -1 0 -6 0 -6 -13 35
2008 -1 0 -4 0 0 -5
2009 -10 0 -1 0 -5 -16 35
2010 -2 -16 -6 -1 -5 -30 35

The Fielding Bible system remains the most comprehensive system that is available to the average fan. Teams likely have more complex data to go by, but recent seasons have seen pitch framing data (strikes here) added since 2010. It is likely Posada would have been substandard going back to the late 1990s in that department. Add to that his deficiencies in calling a game (Adjusted ER) and you can see he has an uphill battle. He showed some ability to throw out would be basestealers, but he also was not good at blocking pitches in the dirt. The end result was that he was the worst defensive catcher in baseball in three out of his last four seasons as a regular catcher and once more in 2004. Again, we have no idea of what happened before 2003, but judging by the other numbers it wasn’t pretty.

This is usually where one of those old-school guys comes out and says, “well I’d like to see you catch in the big leagues.” I agree. I could never do it. This isn’t saying that Posada was a bad catcher. Good and bad are comparative in nature. We have to look at what value he brought to the table and that can only be done by comparing him with other catchers. So, he may have been a good catcher, but compared to the other catchers in the game he was not as valuable defensively.

Baseball-reference had him rated at -60 Rfield runs and Fangraphs had him rated him at -7 total zone runs. So, add in the -80 defensive runs saved and you can see that no one was a big fan of his work. So, yes, Posada was a really good hitter and you could compare him with his teammate Derek Jeter. The difference is that Jeter enjoyed a few more prime seasons.

Second Basemen: The Elites

One of the more fun activities in sports is debating who the best player is at a particular position. The index can play a part in that debate, but it was never really designed to be a definitive answer to that question. Second base is one of those positions where the answer is not necessarily universal. It all depends on what you want out of a second baseman and how important level of competition is. We will begin with the index and expand our search outwards to include the various parts of the game.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Eddie Collins 124.0 120.5 114.8 359.3
Rogers Hornsby 127.0 130.3 100.4 357.7
Nap Lajoie 107.4 102.2 99.2 308.8
Joe Morgan 100.6 98.8 102.4 301.8

The results here are shocking enough. Most people naturally assumed that Hornsby would top the list and I did too when I first compiled it. The difference is slight obviously, but it comes in Collins’ major advantage. He was a major player for nearly two decades. Hornsby didn’t last nearly as long, but he was legitimately an all-time great for more than a decade. However, that will come when we look peak value.

Lajoie is an interesting player because he is the first player we have that straddles the19th century and 20th century. In some cases this throws value into question because the competitive nature of the league was uneven in the early years. However, by the 1890s we can assume there was some uniformity. Most of his value came after the turn of the century, so we can logically keep him here. Lajoie becomes more intriguing when we start breaking down the individual components.

This leaves us with Morgan. Morgan obviously the only player from the modern game and as such played in a multi-chrome environment. This is where terms like greatest and most dominant can be conflated. Morgan was clearly not more dominant than the other three but given arguments about the quality of play we could claim he was the greatest. Then, those arguments are based on certain assumptions too. Let’s move onto peak value and quickly put the index part of the argument to bed.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Rogers Hornsby 93.1 96.2 72.4 261.7 619.4
Eddie Collins 78.3 77.2 75.4 230.9 590.2
Nap Lajoie 75.0 72.6 64.2 211.8 520.6
Joe Morgan 77.2 66.5 63.0 206.7 508.5

One of the notions of the index is the notion of separation. It is designed to separate players as much as possible for Hall of Fame fitness analysis. You take career value and peak value for instance. One is part of the other, but when you put it together it often separates players purposely. The same is true when we use three different statistical sources. Occasionally, we get some honest disagreement and that is where it pays to shine a light and see what is going on.

Eddie Collins had more win shares for his career and during his peak than Hornsby. That begs the question why. WAR exists in a runs environment. Wins are parceled out on a ten-run basis. The idea is that performance occurs in the aggregate. Over a long enough time period all of the hiccups of clutch performance will even themselves. At least that is the idea behind. The creators will tell you that it isn’t necessarily meant to be leant on over a year to year basis. It becomes more accurate the further away you stand.

Win shares are parceled out based on wins. This creates a bit of an issue itself. Players are rewarded based on their placement on a good team. In an aggregate environment, when individual performance improves team performance improves. Unfortunately, it isn’t an exact ratio though. So, it is possible that some players benefit from collective performance or suffer from a lack of support. Yet, it is also possible that when a player performs is more important than simply leaning on the aggregate. Proven clutch performers deserve credit for performing in those situations and WAR simply doesn’t do that. Does Collins benefit simply by being on better teams or he was he honestly a better performer when it mattered? That remains to be seen.

Offensive Numbers

 When we distill out counting numbers we often see a very clear picture of who was the more valuable offensive player. The trouble is that we are really only considering what occurred in the batter’s box. Historians, statisticians, and scouts all agree that what occurs in the batter’s box trumps everything else most of the time, but we can obviously debate to the percentages involved. Here, we see mostly how each player performed against the league with the exception of bases per out. We will cover that down the line.

  wOBA wRC+ OW% BPO
Rogers Hornsby .459 173 .815 1.049
Eddie Collins .409 144 .715 .796
Nap Lajoie .401 144 .758 .777
Joe Morgan .372 135 .702 .818

To give us some idea we will start with offensive winning percentage. In a 162 game schedule, a team made of these players would win at least 113 games a season. The 2001 Mariners set the modern record with 116 wins in 2001. So, these players in their prime were better than the 2001 Mariners even with average pitching and fielding. A team made up of nine Rogers Hornsby’s would win 132 games on average. That is patently ridiculous.

Quite frankly. Hornsby is in the conversation for best right-handed hitter in the history of the game. It really isn’t fair to compare the other players to him, but they do compare favorably to each other. Morgan comes a little short, but we have to keep in mind that it is more difficult to separate yourself in the modern game. Expansion watered down the league and mitigated the effects of deviation. In other words, the standard deviation would be lower, so he might have been better.

Bases per out is a hybrid number meant to show how valuable a hitter was. It unfortunately is not normed like the other numbers, so the raw scores can be misinterpreted. Lajoie and Collins played in the Dead Ball Era when offensive numbers were depressed overall. So, seeing Morgan end up a little higher can be somewhat deceiving. Still, this is just one more category where Hornsby dominates. Naturally, this would lead most to just assume that he was the best of all-time, but there is more to the game than what happens in the batter’s box.

Fielding Numbers

  BR FG DWS WSGG
Nap Lajoie +83 +79 85.7 4
Rogers Hornsby +54 +30 59.6 1
Eddie Collins +35 +40 107.5 8
Joe Morgan -48 -43 90.8 0

Yeah, but but but Joe Morgan won five Gold Gloves! Again, we see the folly of relying on Rawlings to tell who us who the most valuable fielder was. The system is rife with bias first of all, but more importantly only one of our players was eligible for the awards. In the past, we have looked at total zone awards and Fielding Bible awards for the modern players, but here will have to stick win shares on an individual year in and year out basis.

Based on his finish here, we can safely eliminate Morgan from the discussion of who would be the most valuable second baseman of all-time. Of course, the discussion on the greatest second baseman rages on. Morgan combined power, speed, and patience like no other player at the position. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite dominant enough with the bat or the glove.

Of course, win shares are indicative of value over time. Morgan is second all-time in defensive innings at second base, so it makes perfect sense for him to be second in defensive win shares. The win share Gold Gloves are more indicative of defensive value from year to year. Hornsby had some defensive flexibility, but he was not valuable at any position he played according to win shares. The baseball-reference and Fangraphs metrics said he was better than the average second baseman.

This is the primary reason why we do not compile fielding statistics like we do with the index. Fangraphs and baseball-reference compare players with the average at the position while win shares compiles from the replacement level. When you have two different frames of reference you end up having two different results. The take away is that Eddie Collins was likely the best of the four and the most valuable over time. Lajoie was second in terms of greatness but had fewer innings than the others.

While it would seem prudent to eliminate Morgan at this point, those that watched him play would harp on his baserunning as an advantage. One of the peculiarities of scouting is that scouts often salivate over the so-called five tool player. Since fielding and throwing go hand in hand, that often means hitting, hitting for power, and running. The trouble is that they assume every tool is equal. That being said, we should look at baserunning before we write off Morgan.

Baserunning Statistics 

  BsR Rbaser
Joe Morgan 79.0 80.0
Eddie Collins 42.3 40.0
Rogers Hornsby -1.8 -9.0
Nap Lajoie -3.0 -11.0

There is a distinct difference ordinal and interval data. Your ranking of these second baseman largely depends on your adherence to either ordinal or interval data. Ordinal data simply ranks each player in order. In that case, Eddie Collins would be your man. He ranks either first or second in every category individually. So, while Hornsby was the best hitter, he was clearly deficient in fielding and running.

Morgan becomes viable when you consider each facet of the game individually, but when you consider it altogether you get to interval data. That asks how much better someone is than someone else. This is where we discover that hitting is more valuable than fielding which is more valuable than baserunning. So, we can salivate over the five tools, but we need to keep it all in perspective.

Rogers Hornsby’s advantage with the bat is probably enough to carry him when we add in fielding and baserunning. However, the finish is a lot closer than it would appear. In a qualitative way, people might prefer a more well-rounded player and Eddie Collins is the most well-rounded second baseman.